Category Archives: ÉMIGRÉ

Piazzolla: The Man and His Music – An American Life

Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992) is best known as the father of Tango Nuevo – a revolutionary new genre of tango which infuses elements of jazz and classical music. A talented and innovative musician as well as a composer, he became one of the foremost contributors to tango, spreading its sultry, melancholic rhythms and dance across the world.  In this blog series, we track his life and history in relation to his émigré background in America as a boy and then in Argentina later in his career in advance of performing his music at our CLoSer concert on 25 February

Italy – Argentina – New York… 

Born in 1921 in Mar del Plata near Buenos Aires, Argentina, Piazzolla’s family were émigrés of Italian background (all four grandparents were Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina). When he was 4, his family moved to New York’s Little Italy where he stayed for most of his youth, returning back to Argentina only briefly when the Great Depression hit the world in the 1930s. During these years, Astor Piazzolla learned English, Spanish, Italian and French.

Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Mainetti
The Piazzollas. Taken from

Living very close to Jewish community in New York and immersing himself as part of the Italian immigrant culture, Piazzolla used to earn some money extinguishing candles in a local synagogue. Later in life, he explained that the Jewish music had a profound influence on him:

“My rhythmic accents, 3-3-2, are similar to those of the Jewish popular music I heard at weddings.” – Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla learns the bandoneón

In 1929 his father bought 8-year-old Piazzolla a bandoneón (an Argentine version of the concertina). While he wasn’t too pleased with the gift to begin with, he clumsily tried to learn the instrument to please his Dad:

“My first bandoneon was a gift from my father… he brought it covered in a box, and I got very happy because I thought it was the roller skates I had asked for so many times… Dad sat down, set it on my legs, and told me, ‘Astor, this is the instrument of tango. I want you to learn it.’ My first reaction was anger. Tango was that music he listened to almost every night after coming home from work. I didn’t like it.” – Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla as a boy. Taken from

After some success playing the bandoneón on stage, Piazzolla took classes with musician Andres D’Aquila and when he was only 11, he wrote his first Tango song, La Catinga.

A love of classical music and jazz

Despite knowing tango through his father, the music he listened to most of all was the jazz music of figures like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway that was in vogue at the time in New York. Alongside his interest in jazz, he also got to know a great deal of classical music through his pianist and neighbour, Bela Wilda (a disciple of Rachmaninoff). As he was so immersed in the Italian immigrant cultures of Little Italy, the Argentinean tradition of tango was not important to him.

“In my head I had Bach and Schumann and Mozart and very little tango.” – Astor Piazzolla 

A new friendship

When he was 12, by a freak coincidence (and hilarious anecdote), Piazzolla met Carlos Gardel, a legendary Tango singer and musician, who used him as a bandoneón player in private gigs and as a translator (Gardel didn’t know much English).

Carlos Gardel

Gardel also offered Piazzolla the part of a newspaper boy in his movie El Dia Que me Quieras. His friendship with Gardel was monumental for the young Piazzolla, as it was partly Gardel who encouraged him to venture more into this Argentinean genre of music.

The young Piazzolla in Carlos Gardel’s El Dia Que Me Quireas

Look out for Part Two of this blog where we look at Piazzolla’s development when he returns to Argentina in 1937.

Join us on Wednesday 25 February as we perform a range of tango music from Piazzolla, Golijov and Bartok with live dancers and a FREE tango taster from 6.45pm. 

CLOSER: To and From Buenos Aires 
Wednesday 25 February 2015, 7:30pm
FREE tango taster from 6:45pm 
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.


How to dance the tango (in cat gifs) – Part One

In advance of our next CLoSer concert and FREE tango taster, To and From Buenos Aires on 25 February, we thought we’d put together a quick and easy guide to dancing this spectacular art form. In our research, we found out that the steps you’re supposed to use can be compared to the sneaking or stalking action of a cat.  So, we thought, what better way to create this guide, than to get actual cats to show you how its done?! (or cat gifs, to be exact). We also got some inspiration from Classic FM’s ‘History of Classical Music in Cat Gifs’ whose hilarity we are eternally grateful for.

The first thing to remember about tango is that it is an earthly and passionate dance. The dance should be full of drama…



love  passion

and excitement.


As any expert will tell you, the essence of tango is not something you do, but something you feel. The music really has to flow through you in order to grasp the rhythm and sultry of the dance, so get listening! You can listen to our tango playlist on Spotify here!

cat piano

As you will hear in the music, the tango revolves around a slow, steady four-count beat.


The tango is centred around the relationship of a man and a woman. It really does take two to tango, because the dance isn’t just about the man leading and the woman following. Both partners have important things to contribute to the dance – like any good conversation. It’s about teamwork.

team work

It is an improvisational dance (in fact, it was the first improvisational ballroom dance danced in Europe). So before you start, don’t forget that you don’t have to keep exactly to the rules!

improv ..

All great tango dancers work on their walk before they begin the steps. So before we go on to the exact movements needed to dance the tango in the next blog of this series, get practicing that stalking, sneaking cat-like walk.

sneaky kitten

Click here to read Part Two.

CLOSER: To and From Buenos Aires 

Wednesday 25 February 2015, 7:30pm
FREE tango taster from 6:45pm 
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.

Composer Journeys – To and From Buenos Aires

Emigration has been a constant theme for musicians throughout history, with composers moving between countries and continents for a wide variety of reasons. In our upcoming concert series, EMIGRE, we explore the journeys these composers have made through their musical output, whose atmospheres and sounds often reflect and have become associated with their life travels.

For our first concert, To and From Buenos Aires on 25 February 2015, we focus on Argentinean tango. Since this art form’s conception in the bars and slums of Buenos Aires, the city has attracted composers from near and far for its particular cultural scene, as well as inspiring resident composers to share the wonder of the city with the rest of the globe. In this concert we explore three composers’ (familial) journeys to and from Buenos Aires and their individual takes on Tango’s sultry, melancholic rhythms and dance.

As part of our blog series, Composer Journeys, we’ve mapped out the journeys the émigré composers featured in this concert have made, including Piazzolla who left Buenos Aires in the 1950s to take tango music to New York and Paris, along with Golijov, whose family first escaped anti-semitic persecution in Romania to find a new life in Buenos Aires, before he moved to Israel and America later in life.


CLOSER: To and From Buenos Aires 
Wednesday 25 February 2015, 7:30pm
FREE tango taster from 6:45pm 
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.